Obituary: Michael Stedman, filmmaker who conquered the world from Dunedin

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Michael Andrew Stedman: documentary filmmaker; b December 20, 1947; from July 30, 2022

Michael Stedman has transformed a small Dunedin-based documentary company that started out making films about the rediscovery of kākāpō and takahē in Fiordland into the world’s second-greatest natural history filmmaker.

The Natural History Unit (NHU) had originally been set up by Hal Weston and, with Stedman at the helm, it would become a BBC rival and achieve international success.

The story of Michael Stedman, who died in July at the age of 74, and how he grew from a young man growing up in Dunedin to a world leader in his field, is one of perseverance and conviction.

Not only did Stedman become one of the world’s leading makers of natural history documentaries, but he also provided support and encouragement to a number of people who would go on to become prominent in various fields, including Sir Ian Taylor.

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Remarkably, he has found success in countries as diverse as Japan, the United States, China and Germany, while being based in Dunedin.

His first taste of fame came at age 6, playing a frog at the city’s Globe Theater. At 13, he was the stage manager for Romeo and Juliet before getting into television, calling the local Broadcasting Corporation office and applying for a job.

Once he set foot in the door of the Dunedin office in 1964 as a producer, he began to do everything possible to learn the art of filmmaking. Using whatever film or camera he could get his hands on, he started making movies in his spare time.

The shows he worked on included Fair Go and Spot On and he would go on to produce over 1000 shows. Among the first employees he hired were presenters Ian Taylor and Danny Watson.

Stedman at work in Dunedin in 2007.

Graham Warman

Stedman at work in Dunedin in 2007.

In 1979 he took on the role of executive producer of the NHU, setting off a chain of events that would see him become one of the most respected and successful natural history documentary filmmakers in the world.

After a short time with the unit, he decided to move to Australia, where his roles included that of feature manager at ABC. But before heading to Australia, he made key decisions by hiring presenter Peter Hayden and Rod Morris.

He also produced the first critically acclaimed Wild South series and launched the children’s series Wildtrack, an achievement he has always been proud of.

In 1987, TVNZ chief executive Julian Mounter invited Stedman back to New Zealand, in an executive role.

He agreed on the condition that he could live in Dunedin, and he was put in charge of the NHU again, with the clear goal of turning it into a global player.

Stedman will be remembered as a visionary documentary filmmaker.

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Stedman will be remembered as a visionary documentary filmmaker.

In the first 18 months, the unit’s productions tripled, but there were still tensions within profit-driven TVNZ over the role of the unit.

When funding was cut, Stedman persuaded TVNZ to sell the unit to Fox in 1997.

Neil Harraway, who has worked with Stedman throughout his career, said getting a giant like Fox to buy him was an inspired decision.

“We became a button on the butt of the elephant that was News Corp/Fox. With support from Fox Studios, we became Natural History New Zealand – and quickly became the world’s second largest producer of wildlife documentaries. (after the BBC).

At its peak, the unit employed 200 people making 200 hours a year of documentaries and series, with offices in Washington DC and Beijing, and companies in Singapore, Johannesburg and Australia.

Stedman proved to be a shrewd operator, and the list of companies he made documentaries with included Animal Planet, National Geographic, PBS, Discovery Channel, Japan’s NHK, France 5 and ZDF (Germany).

Stedman has made over 50 documentaries in China.

Stedman has made over 50 documentaries in China.

Never shy of a challenge, he tackled two of the most difficult markets in the world: Japan and China.

“He relished the challenges of navigating these new cultures,” Harraway says.

The key to his success was building relationships. In China, he managed to build trust despite the suspicions of the Chinese Communist Party.

Stedman built close relationships with key executives and treated those he partnered with as equals and not just sources of cash.

In 2011, the company was the largest non-Chinese producer of documentaries about China.

“We built trust, it gave us access, and we’ve created over 50 docos in China. We’ve gone places no one else has gone,” he said in 2011.

It worried him at the time that the New Zealand media was not giving China the coverage he thought it deserved. “If you watch the TV news, there’s nothing about China. It’s as if it didn’t exist. »

His impact in China was evident at his funeral thanks to the presence of former New Zealand Ambassador to China Tony Browne. Former Chinese ambassador to New Zealand Chen Mingming, who helped Stedman set up the Beijing office, sent a written tribute.

Tributes from around the world poured in, including that of Clark Bunting, who led Discovery and then Animal Planet.

“His warmth, twisted sense of humor and willingness to speak truth to power were all hallmarks of being a Kiwi…He put a relatively small island on the production map and hit way above your weight.”

Besides being a gifted documentary filmmaker, Stedman also has an eye for spotting talent. Taylor, with whom he shared experience in stage productions such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, became lifelong friends.

Sir Ian Taylor has always appreciated the support he received from Stedman for his company Animation Research.

Kavinda Herath/Stuff

Sir Ian Taylor has always appreciated the support he received from Stedman for his company Animation Research.

Stedman employed Taylor during her first stint on television and they worked together on a number of productions, including Spot On.

“He told me to imagine all the things you wanted to do as a kid and go do them,” Taylor says.

In 1992, Stedman gave him an even bigger break. Taylor’s fledgling graphics company had developed an America’s Cup package, but TVNZ said it had no money for the project.

Stedman wanted to help so he reached out to Taylor. “He said, ‘I’m sitting here with Julian Mounter, who loves yachting, and go out there and do it. I love it.”

Stedman enjoyed international success based in Dunedin.

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Stedman enjoyed international success based in Dunedin.

Getting support from TVNZ was the break his business needed, and Taylor is forever grateful for Stedman’s support.

Together with Professor Lloyd Davis, Stedman also helped set up and support the University of Otago’s science communication department, recognizing how important it was to develop local talent.

Although Stedman’s programs have won more than 250 awards internationally, both Harraway and Taylor feel he did not get the recognition he deserved in his own country.

It frustrated him that many of his programs weren’t shown here.

Stedman was named ONZM in the 2004 New Year’s Honors and received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Otago.

Born in Christchurch, he moved with his family to Dunedin when he was 3 years old. His mother, Geraldine, known as Peggy, instilled in him a love of theater that stayed with him throughout his life.

Peggy and Michael Stedman next to their launch at Te Anau Marina in 2009.

Barry Harcourt / Stuff

Peggy and Michael Stedman next to their launch at Te Anau Marina in 2009.

He married Helen Jowett, also known as Peggy, in 1971 and they had two sons, Tristan and Tio.

Besides playing the guitar, Stedman enjoyed classical music, yachting, camping, and wandering.

Tristan says his father instilled a “deep passion” for the natural world and was an engaged parent who passed on his values ​​to his two sons.

A modest man, his natural instinct was always to praise the work of others, and Tristan says he never sought fame or recognition.

“He undervalued his own abilities. He did a lot of good to a lot of people. »

Harraway says the messages he received in his service showed how much his former boss was appreciated internationally and that working with him had been a pleasure.

“The many quality documentaries and series we have made have provided pleasure and knowledge to millions of people – but his legacy lies in the many, many people he has worked with, mentored and collaborated with around the world, because he has made NHNZ a global leader.”

Stedman retired from NHNZ in 2013. Now known as NHNZ Worldwide, he is owned by television producer Dame Julie Christie.

Sources: NZ On Screen, Neil Harraway, Sir Ian Taylor, Stuff Archive, Judith Curran and Tristan Stedman.

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